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Aberfeldy – the Highlanders’ golden dram

24 November 2021
Driving: the iconic BRM P15 V16 roars again
17 November 2021

The Golden Dram

This year marks 175 years since the founding of John Dewar & Sons. A lesser known single malt, Aberfeldy, from its distillery, is making waves

I t’s said that the Inuit have 50 words for snow. If this is true and not merely apocryphal then surely the Scots must have at least that number, if not more, for rain.

My personal favourite, employed fairly frequently by my Scottish wife, is dreich. While not exactly onomatopoeic it somehow perfectly conveys the state of the weather and the mood of all those who suffer beneath its lowering clouds even if said individuals might never have heard the word before.

According to The Scotsman newspaper, dreich is ‘wet, dull, gloomy, dismal, dreary or any combination of these … Scottish weather at its most miserable.’ Pronounced with a long ‘e’ sound and a hawking at the back of the throat akin to the word ‘loch’ it fairly dares you to expectorate in the face of the gods of rain.


Just three miles from the founder's birth croft lies Dewar's distillery


The distillery at the heart of the Aberfeldy community

And so it is as I find myself standing outside the Dewar’s Aberfeldy distillery, built just yards from the gold-bearing Pitlie Burn with its exceptionally pure water, in the foothills of the Cairngorms and a few miles to the east of Loch Tay, on a gloomy, dank, shout-it-with-me, dreich Saturday in November. The weather outside may well be wild and woolly but the welcome to be found within is wonderfully warm. In I go to warm up and dry out.

The reason I’m here is to tell the tale of one of Scotland’s newer single malt whiskies – Aberfeldy. But to do so would be impossible without telling at least some of the fascinating and not-a-little colourful history of its parent company, Dewar’s.

John Dewar was born in a croft in the little hamlet of Dull (these days ironically and humorously twinned with Boring – the Oregon, USA, unincorporated community with a population of 7,726) on the north banks of the River Tay in 1805. Despite his humble origins Dewar rose beyond what would be generally deemed achievable in the early 19th century and, in 1846, he founded John Dewar & Sons, a small wines and spirits merchant in Perth.

At the age of 40 he had married Jane Gow with whom he had ten children (seven sons) over the course of nineteen years. His fourth son, John Alexander (known as John Jr despite the eldest son, who passed in infancy, having been called John also) and his youngest, Thomas (known to all as Tommy), born when his father was nearly 60, were the eponymous ‘sons’ in the company’s name and to become the driving force in the growth of the brand over the next half century.

The weather outside may well be wild and woolly but the welcome to be found within is wonderfully warm


Pour-your-own but be prepared for cask strength. Not for the faint-hearted.

The story of Scotch whisky itself begins as early as the 15th century with a documented record of distilling in Scotland in the tax records of the day – the Exchequer Rolls.

The word whisky is not to be confused with ‘whiskey’ which comes from the Gaelic derivation of the phrase Uisce beatha meaning ‘water of life’ rather than the Scots derivation. Much of the early immigration into the USA was Irish and so the Gaelic spelling took root as the early Americans experimented with rye rather than malted barley when producing their spirit.

The Patent Still, invented in 1831 enabled continuous distillation to take place. Previously the spirit had been simply malt whisky but this process led to the development of grain whisky which was lighter in flavour. This in turn meant the rise of blended variations to extend the appeal to wider markets.

A serendipitous period in the 1880s saw the introduction of the Spirits Act (1880) along with a phylloxera beetle infestation which was to devastate French vineyards. Brandy had been seen very much as the drink de choix des jours but the beetle’s effect, coupled to the emergence of some highly entrepreneurial Scots meant Scotch whisky had replaced brandy in the cellars of the wealthy and on the tables of nobility by the time the French industry had recovered.

One of these dynamic Scots was young Tommy Dewar, still only in his early twenties. Elder brother John Alexander was focussed on delivering perfection in the production process at home but Tommy sought to transform how whisky was marketed and sold. Paterfamilias John had been one of the first Scotch blenders to put the family name on the bottle as a guarantee of quality and now the brand was expanding to become a global market leader.

Tommy was a repository of canny marketing tricks like creating the Original Highball cocktail during a stopover in New York on his travels. While he was on said travels he published a book documenting his peregrinations entitled A Ramble Round the Globe which was to make him a household name personally. He ingeniously even managed to ensorcell the heights of US government into improving the brand’s recognition and sales when he sent an 18-gallon cask of Scotch whisky to President Benjamin Harrison on the suggestion of the Scottish-born steel tycoon and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.

The success of Tommy’s efforts meant awards and honours started to be feted on the family company. In 1893 John Alexander managed to secure the Royal Warrant of Queen Victoria, becoming the first blended Scotch whisky to achieve this status. The royal endorsement continues to this day and is just one part of a cavalcade of over 1,000 honours won by the distiller.


The four pot stills at the Aberfeldy distillery, showcasing the double distillation method

[Tommy] ingeniously even managed to ensorcell the heights of US government ... when he sent an 18-gallon cask of Scotch whisky to President Benjamin Harrison

Most recently, in 2020, the blended Dewar’s Double Double 32-Year-Old beat out all single malts to win Whisky of the Year at the International Whisky Competition. It, rather naturally, also won first place in the Blended Scotch category and was followed by two other Dewar’s releases in second and third place (the 27-Year-Old and the 25-Year-Old). A triumph not only for Dewar’s but also for Stephanie Macleod, the company’s first female Master Blender and only their seventh overall, who also took home the IWC’s Master Blender of the Year award for the second time.

What has all this to do with Aberfeldy single malt though I hear you ask. Well, in 1898 the family decided to build their own distillery choosing a tranquil location just three miles from the croft of father John’s birth. He had been dead for nearly 20 years at this point but the superb natural water source in the Pitlie Burn so close to the family’s heritage was undoubtedly a practical reason for the location choice allied to a healthy dram of sentimentality.


Dewar's Double Double blends, running the table as the IWC blend of the year


Stephanie Macleod, Dewar's first female Master Blender and IWC's Master Blender of the Year twice

On the outskirts of the village of Aberfeldy, with excellent transport links to nearby Perth, it was a natural spot. The single malt produced on this site was the foundation stone for all the blends produced by Dewar’s; the honeyed heather richness hasn’t changed in over a century and has contributed to Dewar’s becoming America’s second-best-selling whisky in 2020. The Aberfeldy single malt wasn’t available commercially except for a brief period as a 15-year-old called ‘Flora & Fauna’ in the 1990s when the company was owned by Diageo.

In 1998 John Dewar & Sons was bought from Diageo by Bacardi and, perhaps in honour of the century of the building of the distillery, a decision was made to launch the Aberfeldy single malt as a 12-year-old. Up until this point all the liquid had been reserved for the blends of Dewar’s and, despite the success of the single malt launch, the bulk of the Dewar’s brands are still based on the Aberfeldy spirit. Dewar & Sons is now back in the control of the Dewar family with Bacardi acting as a beneficent uncle rather than a parent.

A triumph not only for Dewar’s but also for Stephanie Macleod, the company’s first female Master Blender and only their seventh overall, who also took home the IWC’s Master Blender of the Year award for the second time


A golden sunset to celebrate a golden dram

The company doesn’t do its own malting any longer and matures the spirit elsewhere in Scotland; it’s the now-redundant filling station and warehouse that have become the museum where I tried to dodge the raindrops. The old Malting House has been turned into a whisky lounge and cafe. On display here are the four pot stills that are still in use (two big wash stills and two smaller spirit stills) showcasing the double-distillation method that is at the heart of the Aberfeldy process which creates such a smooth finish.

This year, 2021, sees Dewar’s & Sons celebrating its 175th anniversary. From humble beginnings on the banks of the River Tay, John Dewar’s children went on notable journeys. Besides John Alexander, who was ennobled as 1st Baron Forteviot of Dupplin and Tommy who became 1st Baron Dewar of Homestall, three other brothers made notable impressions on late Victorian and early Edwardian society.

James (b. 1852) was a notable Justice of the Peace (JP) for Gloucester, while Charles (b. 1858) became the JP for Norfolk. Meanwhile Arthur (b. 1860) was a Member of Parliament for Edinburgh South, Solicitor General for Scotland and subsequently Senator at the College of Justice with the judicial title of Lord Dewar where he served until his death in 1917 shortly after his own son, Ian, died, aged 22, fighting in Belgium during the First World War.

Five hundred years on from the first mention of whisky and 175 years on from John Dewar putting his name on the front of a bottle and we find ourselves in a good place. An 18th century excise tax collector was so enamoured with the product on which he was charged with collecting duty that he penned a few lines in homage. That poem, Scotch Drink, quoted in parts below, says more, in fewer lines than I’ve written in this whole piece, about the appeal of whisky and, in particular, the Golden Dram.


The golden dram in question

This year, 2021, sees Dewar’s & Sons celebrating its 175th anniversary


The pot stills, from which the smoothest of single malt whisky emanates

O thou, my muse! Guid auld Scotch drink!
Whether thro’ wimplin worms thou jink,
Or, richly brown, ream owre the brink,
In glorious faem,
Inspire me, till I lisp an’ wink,
To sing thy name!

O Whisky! Soul o’ plays and pranks!
Accept a bardie’s gratfu’ thanks!
When wanting thee, what tuneless cranks
Are my poor verses!
Thou comes – they rattle in their ranks,
At ither’s arses!

The poem, written in 1785, is 21 verses long and all of it is an ode to whisky and the nature of happiness – of community, cooperation, warmth and a friendly welcome.

And the taxman / poet? Well, of course, it was Robert Burns. Who else could it have been?

Words: TG

two big wash stills and two smaller spirit stills showcase the double-distillation method that is at the heart of the Aberfeldy process which creates such a smooth finish

Aberfeldy 12-year-old – £36

Aberfeldy 12 Year Old Whisky is mellowed for 12 years in handmade oak casks. This smooth, sweet dram offers rich rewards for those who like to dig deeper. It is a single malt whisky that is one step beyond the conventional, mainstream offerings and a more interesting choice than the classic malts commonly available.

Scents of spices and honeyed plump fruits. Syrupy, with lots of vanilla and fudge and just a whisper of smoke on the finish.

Aberfeldy 15-year-old – £59

This limited edition Aberfeldy Malt was matured in handmade oak bourbon casks for 15 years before being finished off in Bordeaux red wine casks from the Pomerol region for up to five months creating a rich fruity, honeyed character. Pomerol is the smallest of all the major Bordeaux wine producing appellations, and it is home to some of the most expensive, sought-after wines in the world.

The grapes grown here are predominantly Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine is refined, powerful, intense, and sensual with notes of violet, red berries, truffles, and game.

Aberfeldy 21-year-old – £136

This richly textured dram is matured in a combination of ex-Sherry and ex-Bourbon oak casks for 21 years. Over two decades of resting in oak has added an overall richness; wood exerts its influence but doesn’t overwhelm.

Abounding in heather honey, creamy macadamia nuts and chewy beeswax. Plush with dried fruits, toasted coconut, silky oak and a wee trace of smoke.

Aberfeldy 40-year-old – £2,500

This especially old single malt has rested in three separate oak casks since 1978 and is released in three single cask editions, giving collectors a chance to own each one. Approximately 400 bottles are available in total across the three casks, and there is the opportunity to fill your own bottle by hand in the atmospheric warehouse.

Very few casks of this age make for a truly great whisky, however each of the three American Oak, ex-bourbon hogsheads casks used in this whisky enjoy remarkable qualities having a unique story and flavour profile tied to their history.

1 Comment

  1. Alan White says:

    What a balanced informative article, which as a whisky collector I thoroughly enjoyed. What a story. Dewars & Sons – The Aberfeldy – I will be sure to purchase a bottle or two of the 21 year old, one to share with friends and family at Christmas and one to add to my collection.

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